September 13, 2016
The life of a working writer is not often discussed among those who don’t write. I think many people imagine the writing life to look like Steinbeck, pen behind his ear, hammering away at an Olympia 2000 with pages crumpled and strewn all over a small office. Or maybe days spent at Starbucks, tucked on one of those overstuffed velvet armchairs, alternately gazing out the window, and furiously typing away at the keyboard, fueled by continuous lattes.
In the real writing life though, there are ordinary people who must force themselves to sit in chairs with journals or computers and sometimes even typewriters. These people must write hundreds of thousands of words in order to get some that string together just as they had hoped.
While I wait for Assignment Six to be returned, I turn to the special sections in the ICL text within each assignment called Take Five and The Working Writer. These sections contain several exercises designed to help students become working writers. I don’t know any people who decide to become writers because they love to market themselves. Writing is an art and a science, but the business of writing is a different and necessary animal.
If you just want to write and share your stories with those who love you and come into contact with you, you won’t need to understand the business of writing. At some point though, many writers want to see where they stand alongside their peers. In order to find this out, writers must learn how to submit work:
by researching which agents, editors, and publishers take the type of writing being submitted, by following their submission guidelines, and by marketing themselves in a way that is appealing.
I take the Take Five and The Working Writer tasks seriously. As I peruse those for Assignment Six, I decide to tackle one that asks me to choose three stories in the ICL anthology that appeal to me. This anthology holds about 100 stories that have been published in many different children’s magazines. They’ve been meticulously culled from massive quantities of children’s tales being published every day. I sort through them and identify three that speak to me and that I might want to mimic as I practice my story writing. I’m supposed to identify the theme in each. This proves trickier than I imagined. In my teaching, I regularly ask students to tell me about the theme of the story. In fact, I’ve even been known to tell other teachers that it frustrates me when they can’t figure it out––but never again. It’s hard! It might be about friendship or courage. Sometimes it’s difficult to figure it out. I find that if I identify a potential theme, I need to find evidence to support it. How is that theme conveyed? How has the writer tied the pieces of the story together so as to leave no doubt for the reader?
This becomes a bit of an obsession with me. I love the exercise because it gives me the focus for my reading as research instead of pure enjoyment. I end up doing this exercise with nine articles instead of three. I analyze three stories in each of the categories written for beginning, intermediate, and advanced readers.
My eyes are wide open now to what makes a good storyline and how the characters need to support the theme of the story. I become very particular about which stories I deem fantastic examples worthy of using for my mentor texts. Sometimes I find the work I do between assignments brings me closer to feeling like a working writer. I now use the term “working writer” instead of “real writer” because I’m working with my writing all the time now. There is no need to distinguish between real and fake because I am producing quantities of text now and I have accepted that I must learn the business of writing as well.
And I am learning the business of writing. I’m figuring out the difference between cover letter and query letter and practice writing a cover letter for a story I’ve written. Do you know the difference? A good cover letter is more about having good manners. Someone has asked you to submit a story, so you know they are accepting it. In this case, you want your submission to have an introduction, that is, a cover letter. “Hi! My name is Kimberley, I’d like you to meet my newest story ___________. I think you’ll like her, you have a lot in common. Story, tell this editor (agent, etc.) more about yourself.” Doesn’t that seem like a much kinder introduction than an editor or agent opening a story that’s been thrust at them, expecting to be read?
A query letter, on the other hand, is a tad like setting up a blind date. This one needs a lot more marketing skill to help get an agent or editor interested. You want them wanting to make the commitment to read your story. These two letters in one way or another make the difference between your story getting read or not. Whenever I recognize a gateway to a better place, I make sure I understand all the rules and customs of the culture on the other side of that gateway. I can be a great writer, but if I want to get published I also need to be adept at marketing myself. That’s why you might see so many opportunities for learning how to develop an author platform. When I started this course, I felt that marketing was for people who couldn’t shine on their own. Like many other things I’ve been wrong about in my life, this was a game changer in the way I think about being a working writer.
I’ve begun to look at my social media differently. Sure I still share some sweet pictures of my children as they head to school or do funny things. This helps people get to know me, but I also pay close attention to my writing community. Who am I supporting? How can I find out more about the kinds of books being published that are in the same genre as the one I’m trying to sell. I “friend” lots of well known writers like Jane Yolen, Kate Messner, Gae Polisner, and Tara Lazar and when they accept my friend request on Facebook I feel a thrill. I feel closer to the children’s literature world. Then, there are the students I meet on the ICL Facebook page who I get to know personally and who show me what other working writers struggle with and how they persevere. Both of these uses of social media help me feel a part of the world of children’s literature. I also follow writers on Twitter. This leads me to check out great Twitter chats like #kidlitchat, #pbsummit16, and #amwriting.
It is a world that changes regularly and requires keeping up with technology and the times in order to know where the stories you write will fit in. It is not an optional world anymore. Recently I asked my dear writer-friend Barbara O’Connor––author of 17 children’s books––if she thought I should worry about social media as a writer. She said without any hesitation that it matters. She said the connections people make on social media can make a huge difference in who buys your stories and how people think of you. I believe her. The writing life is about more than just writing, but good writing is its heart and soul. A working writer needs to respect both parts.
Kimberley Moran's site
Kimberley Moran is a gifted and talented teacher and freelance writer who lives in Hampden, Maine. She has two children and one very nice husband. Kimberley would like her bio to make her sound brilliant, witty, and kind because she knows that when you write and read you get to be anyone you want to be.